On the eve of NFL free agency, the Cincinnati Bengals would be wise to heed the lessons of the past. Although the team has an NFL high $57 million to spend under the salary cap, history shows that teams rarely get what they pay for when bringing in free agents.
Just this past season, the Philadelphia Eagles went hog wild in free agency, signing Nnamdi Asomugha and other big names, gaining them the nickname of "The Dream Team" prior to the season. Pundits everywhere were quick to put the Eagles in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl. Once the games started being played, however, the Eagles limped home with an 8-8 record, failing to even make the playoffs. Meanwhile, division rival New York was a minor player in free agency and won a Super Bowl behind their home-grown talent.
The Bengals are well aware of the pitfalls that come with trying to "get rich quick" by signing free agents. Twice in the last three seasons Cincinnati tried to upgrade their receiving corps by doling out big dollars to players who failed to live up to expectations.
In 2009, the Bengals inked Laveranues Coles to a four year, $28 million dollar deal. Ostensibly, Coles would provide a Pro Bowl caliber threat opposite Chad Ochocinco. Coles caught only 43 passes for a paltry 514 yards in his single season in Cincinnati before being cut. The team made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to Coles' former team, the New York Jets who didn't seem to miss him. Second year player Andre Caldwell, a third round pick, caught more passes than Coles.
Undeterred by the Coles' failure, the Bengals went big in free agency the next season, going after Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. Owens led the team in receptions with 72, but his addition to the locker room caused chemistry problems with Ochocinco. The team finished 4-12, paving the way for the total offensive makeover in 2011. For his part, Bryant never played a down for the Bengals after signing a deal identical to that of Coles.
Other franchises, namely the Washington Redskins and Arizona Cardinals, have been burned far more often and in more high profile ways than Cincinnati. Arizona got a good return on Kurt Warner, who everyone thought was finished, but were less fortunate with Emmitt Smith and Edgerrin James who didn't perform up to their big contracts. Washington cut Albert Haynesworth before this season began, just one of many high profile busts who owner Daniel Snyder has brought into D.C. to take his money.
No, the NFL is still a league that favors developing through the draft. It's the blue print followed by the Steelers, Patriots and Packers. Free agency might fill a need once in a while, but unlike in other sports, free agents rarely become game changers.
So as the Bengals won't be in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes and will likely pass on big money players like Saints G Carl Nicks, fans shouldn't gripe too much. History shows that the franchise is better off continuing its recent run of smart draft picks and developing them into a championship caliber team.
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